What is a gentleman?
A gentleman is a gentle man. In this connection, the word “gentle” means “noble”, as it does in the phrase “of gentle birth”. So, originally, a gentleman was one who, by birth and training, belonged to the upper classes. He was of noble blood. Then, because the social manners of the upper classes were refined, as compared with those of the lower classes, anyone who knew how to behave in polite society came to be called a gentleman. So gentlemanliness came to refer to outward behavior. A man who behaved like a gentleman was a gentle man.
In his description of a gentleman, Cardinal Newman goes much deeper than this. His definition of a gentleman is, “One who never inflicts pain”. “This description”, he says, “is both refined and, so far as it goes, accurate”. “The true gentleman”, he goes on, “carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt to the others – all class of opinions, or collision of feelings, restraints, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern is to make everyone at ease and at home. He has eyes on all his company; he is tender towards the bashful, gentle towards the distant, and merciful towards the absurd… He makes light of favor while he does them, and seems to be receiving when he is conferring. He is patient, forbearing and resigned”.
Good manners, the manners of a gentleman, may be superficial, and sometimes they may be a little insincere; but they are as necessary to the continuance of society as oil to the smooth working of a machine. And with people who have naturally kindly hearts, politeness is neither insincere nor artificial. For the essence of good manners is consideration for the feelings of others, surely this is a virtue. Someone has called good manners “surface morals”, because the essence of true morals is unselfishness.
A true gentleman, then, is a fine character. His politeness and courtesy go far deeper than mere outward behavior. They spring from goodness of heart. He instinctively thinks of the feelings, the comfort and happiness of others before his own And so there are true gentlemen, nature’s gentlemen, to be found even among the poor and ignorant, who, though they have never had the chance of learning the rules of etiquette in polite society, have kind hearts. These are God’s own gentlemen.